Dancing, history and genealogy are three facets of this Stansbury High School Language Arts teacher’s Scottish passion to which she is devoting her life.
All four of Richelle Augustine’s grandparents emigrated from Scotland to the United States in the 1960s. In fact, one set of her grandparents was among those who founded the Utah Scottish Association.
One grandfather served as a “Royal Fusilier”—a bagpiper, stationed out of a summer getaway for British royalty, called Hollyrood Castle. Her son, Squire Augustine, is even halfway through a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) where else? Scotland.
Augustine recalls, “As grandchildren, we were all told we needed to do something to keep our Scottish heritage alive.”
When she was five years old, she began highland dance lessons. She continued on, reaching Premiere status (the equivalent of a martial arts black belt) and teaching for one year, after marrying in1992, when her first child was born.
When Augustine was ten years old, her grandfather started teaching her how to do genealogy.
“He would take me to the old Family History Library when it was in the Church Office Building,” she said. When she graduated from high school, Augustine began working at the library, situated at Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, and set the goal to make this a lifetime passion.
In 2007, Augustine became concerned that interest in highland dance was waning. She decided to resume teaching to ensure the Scottish dance’s heritage isn’t lost.
Currently, Augustine is teaching nine competitive beginners and five other recreational dancers in her Stansbury home’s dance studio. She has even taught boys, as well as girls. She has instructed her husband’s competitive soccer players, helping them with balance and small twitch muscle coordination—skills crucial for endurance and solid play.
Augustine is also in charge of the Moab, Utah highland dance competition, “Scots on the Rocks.” This year the event is Nov. 3-5.
However, her favorite of Utah’s highland games is held in Payson City Park in July and there are two other Salt Lake City venues—one at the Utah Fairgrounds in June and another at First Presbyterian Church on South Temple and C Street in October.
The most exciting news for Utah Highland Dance this year, Augustine said, is that Salt Lake City will host its first national highland dance championship July 20-23. As a result, locals will see tons of youth in tartans scrambling around the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Highland game events are family friendly affairs. They feature bagpipe bands, athletic events, clan tents for tracing Scottish genealogy, vendors selling trinkets, as well as food, entertainment and, of course, highland dancing competitions.
“Every step in competition is set by a [Scottish] national board,” she said. “There are certain steps in a certain order.” The board compiles a book of steps and movements that serve as the dancer’s bible. The steps vary each year.
Dancers who compete must have a certified teacher. The rigorous certification exam tests both a student’s knowledge of theory and understanding of every dance.
Dancers begin competition routines with 88 points. Judges deduct points for each mistake based on three things-timing (being on beat), technique (correct steps) and deployment (posture). Live bagpipers accompany the dances.
“The winner is the one with the least deductions.” However, she said, “The dancers do not compete against other dancers, they compete against themselves.” Augustine does not require her dancers to compete, she said, but “it is a good gage for [them].”
Faythe Evans, who is a ninth grader at Stansbury High School, is her current dancer who has hit the Premiere level. Dancers progress through three levels, with six different competitions for each level. When Premiere dancers win, there are usually cash awards.
Scottish dance has military roots, Augustine noted. Scottish troops used this form of dance to keep their armies in tip-top shape, and illustrate events from the country’s military history.
“Each dance is generally some type of folklore experienced by the military,” she said. For example, in the “Highland Fling,” she said, the men dance on one spot on a battle shield. This built up their endurance for war.
In the sword dance, the men would cross two swords on the dance floor and dance within the box created by the crossed swords, trying to avoid touching the swords.
Superstition held that how well they would do in battle depended on whether they could avoid touching the swords as they danced, Augustine said. The modern competition equivalent is that if dancers touch a sword, they are disqualified.
Other dances, like the “Sean Truibhas” (pronounced “shon truce”) document England’s invasion of Scotland. When the Scottish overcame suppression, the dance illustrates this with kicks, which symbolize the shedding of English rule, she said.
When men went off to war in the 1930s, women began highland dancing to preserve this heritage.
“It is a great work out,” she said, “very challenging and very, very technical. It is ballet and aerobic [movement] at the same time.”
Augustine is proud of her students. Many of the students have Scottish heritage and are able to wear their family tartan.
“What other dancing tradition, other than highland dancing, are you able to wear your genealogy?” Augustine questioned.
Whether it’s teaching or dancing, researching her Scottish heritage or sharing the country’s history, Augustine has found a way to seamlessly meld it all together. In the process she honors her grandparents, and the heritage they gave her.
The valley and state can thank her and her family for keeping Utah Scottish heritage alive for the next generations of Utah Scots.